April 22, 2008


The Great Terror at 40: As his classic work is republished, Robert Conquest reflects on how it threw open the doors of the Gulag’s secrets. (Robert Conquest, Spring 2008, Hoover Digest)

What was the condition of our previous knowledge of Stalinist actuality before, let us say, 1956? We had for decades had a large amount of real information about the purges, all often rejected or ignored, while little truth and much falsehood had emerged from Moscow. However, since 1956, starting with the revelations of Nikita Khrushchev’s Secret Speech it was (or seemed) indisputable that a regime of lies and terror had indeed been in existence. Over the years that followed came the publication of One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, which, as Galina Vishnevskaya put it, “let the genie out of the bottle, and however hard they tried later, they couldn’t put it back in.”

So by 1964 or 1965 it had gradually become plain that a huge gap in history needed to be filled, and that the facts released over the past few years, plus the often denied testimony of some of the regime’s hostile but increasingly justified witnesses, could be put together, if carefully done, to produce a veridical story, a real history.

When my book came out in 1968, the publishers were surprised to have to reprint it time and time again to meet demand. Reviews, from left and right, were almost all very favorable. And it was soon published in most Western languages—and also Hindi, Arabic, Japanese, and Turkish.

Over the decades that followed, “the period of stagnation” as it became known in Russia, there was little further public addition to our knowledge—or to that of the Soviet citizen. But in those years came many breaches of the official silence. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn “illegally” gave us The Gulag Archipelago. From Andrei Sakharov came striking interviews and interventions. There was a flowering of samizdat and, to counter it, many arrests (and confinement in penal “psychiatric” wards— as reported by my friend Vladimir Bukovsky and others—as well as the Gulag). And there was Roy Medvedev’s Let History Judge—from, what is more, a devoted Leninist: a deeply detailed blow at the Stalin terror. There was a liberalism of the catacombs. Above all, the old falsifications lost credibility among anything describable as an educated class in Russia. The public acceptance of what they knew to be not merely falsehoods, but stupid and long-exposed falsehoods—the mere disgrace of it ate into the morale of even the official intelligentsia, as I remember noting in conversations with Soviet diplomats. Meanwhile, the original 1968 edition of The Great Terror had been published in a Russian version (in Florence, in 1972) and was soon being smuggled into the USSR, where it was welcomed by many outside—and, as we now know, inside—official circles.

In the early 1980s came the realization by some in Moscow that the whole regime had become nonviable economically, ecologically, intellectually— and even militarily—largely because of its rejection of reality.

Posted by Orrin Judd at April 22, 2008 12:55 PM

The state may be able to get you to say that 2 + 2 = 5, but building an airplane by that formula isn't a recipe for success...

Posted by: Mikey [TypeKey Profile Page] at April 22, 2008 2:21 PM

I wouldn't be surprised in the slightest if the nutroots began to deny the Gulag. And the famines. And everything else. If Putin becomes more and more of an irritant, they will flock to him.

Posted by: ratbert at April 22, 2008 11:38 PM

Really, all this verbiage is unnecessary, Conquest's opinion pieces require only the repetition of seven words plus an explanation point.

Posted by: Matt Murphy at April 23, 2008 12:41 AM

Exclamation, beg your pardon, it's late...

Posted by: Matt Murphy at April 23, 2008 12:42 AM

Matt Murphy,

Those would be the ones starting with, "I told you so, you," yes?

Posted by: John Thacker at April 23, 2008 2:06 PM

John Thacker:

Yep. He didn't actually say it -- Kingsley Amis reportedly made up the story -- but people who know him have testified that it's the kind of thing he would say.

Posted by: Matt Murphy at April 23, 2008 7:59 PM